Grace Paley, 1922-2007

Jewish socialism influenced Grace Paley's life and literature.

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Grace Paley is a major writer on seemingly minor themes.  Her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), placed its emphasis on the word “little”; its characters were not roiled by major historical events, but by the events from mundane life.  “She is that rare kind of writer, a natural with a voice like no one else’s--funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute,” Susan Sontag once wrote about Paley.

Paley was a writer whose characters were mostly of a piece: middle-class New York Jews. They are enmeshed in their domestic spheres, their squabbles and their failures reflective of the changes--social, political, intellectual--taking place in the wider society.  Paley was also unashamedly Jewish in her choice of material.  “My first two stories were specifically Jewish,” Paley remembered in a Paris Review interview.  “When I took a class at the New School this teacher said to me, ‘You’ve got to get off that Jewish dime, Grace, they’re wonderful stories, but . . .’  The idiocy of that remark was that he was telling me this just as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and others were getting more generally famous everyday."

Paley’s parents were Russian revolutionaries who fled to the United States to escape the czar.  She was born in New York City in 1922, and was sent by her parents to local public schools.  After attending Hunter College and NYU, Paley married young, had two children, and was quickly divorced.  That milieu--urban divorcees, single mothers raising grace paleychildren--became the centerpoint of Paley’s fiction, which was powerfully committed to daily life.  “I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, ‘People will think this is trivial, nothing,’” she told the Paris Review.  “Then I thought, ‘It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.